(Photo by Davidoff Studios)
The island was a restful getaway for the former Beatle, who found the place both charming and curious.
By Joe Capozzi
Palm Beach Post staff writer
Imagine John Lennon living on Palm Beach a mile up the road from President Donald Trump.
Imagine John Lennon marching with protesters to Mar-A-Lago.
It might have happened.
Five years after he rattled President Nixon with his "Give Peace a Chance" protest anthem during the Vietnam War, Lennon visited the island on a Christmas vacation that also marked his last days as a member of The Beatles.
He went for walks along the ocean, lounged by the pool, tossed firecrackers with his son under the palm trees. He even sneaked in a side trip to Disney World, where he went mostly unrecognized by the Magic Kingdom crowds.
Beatlemania, this was not.
"I really like it here," he told a Palm Beach Daily News reporter during that 1974 Christmas holiday visit, possibly his first to the island. "I really don't want to leave Palm Beach. I'd like to own a piece of it."
And that's exactly what he would do, six years and many more visits later. On Jan. 31, 1980, he bought El Solano, an Addison Mizner-designed oceanfront mansion he'd rented for a few weeks almost a year earlier.
He and his wife, the artist and musician Yoko Ono, started planning extensive renovations and dreamed of becoming regular Palm Beach snowbirds nestled in an estate just a mile up A1A from Mar-A-Lago, which President Trump now uses as his winter White House.
But 37 years ago — on Dec. 8, 1980 — Lennon was murdered by a deranged fan outside his luxury apartment building in New York City. The dream was over.
Celebrities have always come and gone on Palm Beach. But for a guy who didn't spend a lot of time on the island, Lennon made a lasting impression on the people he connected with.
The Lake Worth man hired as Lennon's gardener after writing him a letter. The neighbor whose former FBI agent husband chatted over a hedge with the former Beatle without knowing who he was. The Palm Springs man who delivered a eulogy at El Solano after Lennon died.
Their memories all shine on.
May Pang, John Lennon and Julian Lennon at the Sun and Surf condo on Palm Beach, December 1974. (Davidoff Studios)
'He was here to swim and relax'
Except for a few legal technicalities, The Beatles had already broken up when Lennon arrived in Palm Beach in late December 1974 with his girlfriend and his 11-year-old son Julia.
"We wanted to give Julian a good time for his Christmas holiday, somewhere warm" May Pang, Lennon's girlfriend during an 18-month period from 1973-75 known as "The Lost Weekend," recalled in a November interview with The Palm Beach Post.
The Beatles' final album, "Let it Be," was released in 1970. By then, Paul McCartney had already announced he was leaving. But over the next few years, even as each of the Beatles started working on individual music projects, diehard fans held out hope of a reunion. Their optimism was fueled in 1973 when Lennon separated from his wife Yoko, regarded by some people as a factor in breaking up the band.
But by December 1974, McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr had all signed the legal document spelling out the terms of The Beatles' formal split. The only signature missing was Lennon's.
The Last Years In Palm Beach
He was supposed to sign at a meeting with his former bandmates at the Plaza Hotel in in New York City on Dec. 19. But he blew it off after objecting to a clause that he felt would create tax problems for him.
He went to Palm Beach instead.
"Morris Levy said, 'Why don't you come down, take my apartment," Pang recalled, referring to the controversial mob-tied music industry executive who owned a unit at the Sun and Surf Condominiums on Sunrise Avenue.
Not long after arriving, Lennon took a side trip to Disney World with his son, Pang, Levy and Levy's 11-year-old son Adam. Lennon's favorite ride was Pirates of the Caribbean. And he relished being able to walk nearly unrecognized though crowds at the Magic Kingdom.
But lawyers from Apple Records found him. Carrying newly-revised dissolution documents, they caught up with Lennon at the Polynesian Village Resort.
Pang snapped a photo of Lennon signing the papers. The image is included in her 2008 book, "Instamatic Karma," which says he signed the document on Dec. 29. 1974, "in the unlikely backdrop of Disney World, at the Polynesian Village Hotel, officially ending the greatest rock 'n roll band in history…"
A day later, Lennon was back in Palm Beach.
"Aside from signing the papers (at Disney World), he was there to swim and relax and not think about anything. Nothing about work," Pang said. "We were there for a week. A few days in Palm Beach, a day or two at Disney World, then we came back to Palm Beach and then home to New York."
Adam Levy said he remembers hitting it off with Julian Lennon in Palm Beach while their fathers talked. In a store one day, the 11-year-old boys found a new source of amusement called snap-bangs – tiny white firecrackers that make a loud bang when tossed on the ground.
News clipping of John Lennon with Adam Levy (second from left) and kids at a Palm Beach restaurant in December 1974.
"I remember asking for some money to buy some of those and John Lennon gave us $100," recalled Adam Levy, who now lives in New Jersey.
"I don't think at that age that I fully appreciated who John Lennon was. But throwing those firecrackers, it's the one thing only an 11-year-old child could remember about spending a vacation with John and Julian Lennon."
Lennon also spent time with Morris Levy's friend, Lewis Garlick, who owned a company that printed album covers and sleeves. Garlick and his wife, Jewel, also had an apartment at the Sun and Surf and hosted Lennon and Pang for a couple of days.
(left to right) May Pang, Lewis Garlick, John Lennon and May Pang at the Sun and Surf condominiums on Palm Beach in December 1974. (Photo by Davidoff Studios)
"We drove them around in a rental car," recalled the Garlicks' daughter, Gail Garlick, who was 26 at the time. "John and his girlfriend sat in the back. My husband and I were up front. We showed them around Palm Beach."
'He was very approachable'
One day at the Sun and Surf, Lennon allowed a reporter and two local photographers to join him poolside as he met with Garlick's wife to discuss his role in helping her raise money for a charity project to fight bone disease.
When father-son photographers Bob and Ken Davidoff arrived to take pictures, they found Lennon – wearing a floppy cap, sunglasses and a newly-purchased Mickey Mouse T shirt – sitting on a chaise lounge with Julian.
John Lennon and son, Julian. December 1974 at the Sun and Surf condo, Palm Beach (Davidoff Studios)
With the Garlicks sitting nearby, Lennon played backgammon with Pang and watched Julian swim in the pool. There were no formal introductions, Davidoff recalled. They just started shooting photos.
"I was totally star-struck," Davidoff said, "but he was very approachable. I said something like, 'What is it that you don't like about all of this?', meaning fame and stardom. He said, 'I don't like being famous. I just want to be like you guys."'
Davidoff made sure his dad, who died in 2004, took a few photos of him with Lennon, including one that he carries in his wallet today.
Lennon also spent part of the week attending parties on the island and taking Pang shopping for jewelry on Worth Avenue. "He bought me a little necklace and earrings and a bracelet," she said.
Davidoff saw Lennon again in either 1979 or 1980, after getting a tip that the former Beatle was in town, this time with Yoko. Carrying a copy of the photo his dad took of him with Lennon, Davidoff tracked the musician down in a store on Worth Avenue and reminded him about the December 1974 photo shoot.
A photo Ken Davidoff keeps in his wallet of him and John Lennon. (Photo/Leslie Gray Streeter)
Lennon asked if he had more pictures from that day. "Can you bring them by the house?" Lennon asked.
Davidoff remembers his own reaction of shock: "I couldn't believe it. John Lennon invited me his house."
Twenty minutes later, Davidoff was standing at the front door of El Solano on Ocean Boulevard. He knocked and assumed a maid or an assistant would answer. He was wrong.
"John (expletive) Lennon answered the door!" he recalled. "I didn't expect that at all."
But his visit lasted less than 10 seconds. "I said, 'These are the proofs from that day.' He thanked me and took the sheet. Didn't invite me in. And he never called to order any photos."
"John made the tea"
One day in early 1979, a "Mrs. Green" of New York City called the late Palm Beach Realtor Ben Johnson about renting a home for the winter season.
When "Mrs. Green" said she was staying at The Colony hotel and hoped to see homes that afternoon, Johnson explained he'd need a little more advance notice.
"She said, 'Ben, it's not really Mrs. Green. It's Yoko Ono.' I said, 'I'll be right over,"' Johnson recalled in a 1989 interview with The Palm Beach Post.
The first and only house he showed them was El Solano, owned by his friend, socialite Brownie McLean.
Built in 1919, the two-story estate had 22 rooms, nine bathrooms and four fireplaces over 10,600 square feet, along with two swimming pools and a rich history as home to Addison Mizner, Harold Sterling Vanderbilt and other big shots of Palm Beach society.
El Solano, the oceanfront mansion where John Lennon bought in January 1980, 11 months before he was murdered in New York City. (Davidoff Studios)
When McLean lived there, the house for a while held the ashes of her late husband, Jock, as well as the Hope Diamond, which eventually wound up in the Smithsonian Institution.
Within a half hour of their visit, Lennon and Ono decided to rent the home for the month of March – for $25,000. But after just two weeks, business lured them to New York and they gave the home back to McLean.
Yoko Ono signed this check for downpayment when she and John Lennon bought El Solano. Bank teller April Tester was so thrilled she made a copy of the check as a keepsake -- after blotting out the account number.
Later that year, Lennon and Ono returned. With Johnson's help, they stopped by McLean's house one day in November with an offer to buy it.
"John made the tea, while Yoko hammered out the negotiations," Johnson, who worked for Cutter Real Estate, recalled.
At first, McLean said no. "They made lowball offers," she recalled in an interview a few years ago.
"Finally, they got up to my price, but demanded I be out of the house in a week. I called up Northwood University, offered them the antiques I didn't want, and left."
The Lennons started their renovation plans in February 1980. Later that year, less than a month before Lennon was murdered, a Palm Beach official wrote a letter thanking them for their restoration efforts — and politely reminding them that the roof was in need of repair.
"Your house is the only one on South Ocean Boulevard showing green roofing paper to our many residents and visitors," Robert Ballinger of the Landmarks Preservation Commission wrote on Nov. 3, 1980.
After Lennon's death, the El Solano renovations would take several years. Ono didn't spend much time there before letting it go in 1986 for $3.15 million. (The house's most recent sale last year fetched $23.05 million.)
"I sold the house because it's just very painful, because it's a reminder of a beautiful time we couldn't have together," she said in 1990.
McLean would lose touch with Ono. "I heard later that she thought my husband's ghost was haunting the place."
Palm Beach 'recharges the batteries'
It was at El Solano in March 1979 that Lennon's two sons, Julian and Sean, met each other for the first time. Also visiting were Yoko's three Japanese nieces, whom Lennon referred to as the "Japanieces," according to "The Last Days of John Lennon," a memoir published in 1991 by former Lennon assistant Frederic Seaman.
Lennon often brought his Ovation acoustic guitar out back to play by the swimming pool and, under the palm trees, taught Julian how to play chords, according to the book.
He also spent time with Seaman watching TV — including the movie "Deliverance" — discussing UFOs and enjoying sunrises through the mansion's front windows. "Sunrises rejuvenate you. It recharges the batteries!" Lennon is quoted as saying.
On April 1, 1979, Lennon chartered a small yacht where he threw Julian a party for the boy's 16th birthday. A day or two later, he and Ono drove Julian to the airport – the last time Lennon would ever see his oldest son.
In early 1980 at El Solano, Lennon hosted the actor Peter Boyle and visited an unnamed metaphysical bookstore in West Palm Beach where he bought boxes of books to fill the estate's empty shelves, according to Seaman.
On April 18, after making arrangements with a local flower shop, Lennon had Seaman decorate the house with more than 100 gardenias as a 47th birthday surprise for Yoko when she woke up.
John Lennon outside The Breakers in February 1980, after having lunch with Yoko Ono and actor Peter Boyle. (Pat Partington/The Palm Beach Post)
Lennon wasn't always thrilled about the island, according to Seaman's book.
One chapter describes Lennon berating Boyle at El Solano after they returned from dinner at La Petite Marmite, a Worth Avenue restaurant Boyle insisted on going to even though it was frequented by society photographers. Lennon had visited the restaurant in 1974 and didn't enjoy the experience:
"It became difficult for them to eat so they requested a table in the rear of the restaurant where they could be alone," read a Jan. 1, 1975 Palm Beach Daily News column.
The Seaman book also describes Lennon sitting at brunch in The Breakers, "sizing up the crowd, pointing out those who were most likely to muster the courage to approach our table for autographs."
Lennon enjoying being driven around Palm Beach and West Palm Beach "observing the 'natives,' one of John's favorite pastimes," according to the book.
"John was very impressed by the 'wealthy atmosphere' and 'squeaky-clean" streets but also complained about the preponderance of well-dressed, clean-cut and tanned men and women," Seaman wrote. "He said that 'a little sleaze' might give the place much-needed 'color'" and "would no doubt liven up the disgustingly wholesome environment."
Mimi Welfeld (Palm Beach Daily News)
But there was lots he loved about Palm Beach, too, including Sunrise Health Foods, famous for smoothies and pita sandwiches in its cramped digs next to the Palm Beach Hotel on Sunrise Avenue.
"It was their store," recalled the late Mimi Welfeld, who owned the store, which has since closed.
One day, he bought virtually all the Haagen-Dazs ice cream in the freezer.
"All the girls (went nuts) because he went into the back to put on one of our T-shirts," Welfeld said, recalling another visit when she gave Lennon the shirt for free.
"He was very personable, so nice to the girls. He came up to buy the shirt and I said, 'Be my guest.' Then he asked if he could put it on right there."
As Lennon pulled the shirt over his head, Yoko "was running around getting cheese," Welfeld recalled.
'It seemed like he was lonely'
El Solano was one of many homes serviced in the 1970s by David Gately of American Pool Services in West Palm Beach. In February 1980, he got a phone call to meet the new owner, a "Mr. Green."
"It was 9 a.m. and it was really cold. I pulled down the service drive and down the path comes John Lennon and Peter Boyle," recalled Gately, a huge Beatles fan and a big fan of Boyle's 1974 movie "Young Frankenstein."
Gately remembers being so nervous that he stammered and stuttered until Lennon calmed him down. "He said, 'It's all right, it's all right.' I said, 'Yeah, but you're a Beatle and he's Frankenstein.'"
It was the start of a friendship that built up during Gately's twice-a-week visits to service the estate's two swimming pools. Every time Gately arrived, Lennon was waiting outside to chat with him.
"We got to know each other on a first-name basis. It seemed like he was a lonely guy," said Gately, who one day installed a pool slide and showed Lennon's son Sean how to use it.
As Gately cleaned the pool, Lennon would ask what he did for fun. "I told him about a poker group I was in and he perked up. 'I love poker.' I said sometimes we're allowed to bring a guest and he said, 'Next season when I come, I would love to play poker with you guys."'
All summer, Gately fantasized about walking into his local poker game with a Beatle. "I'm thinking, 'My God, wait 'til I tell my friends I'm bringing a guest to poker and I see their faces when I walk in with John Lennon!'
"But, of course, he never came back."
On a boat called Imagine
One morning in February 1980, Terry Bosley took a phone call from a man who wanted to book a lunch cruise that afternoon on a 41-foot sailboat Bosley had named Imagine, after a signature Lennon song.
Bosley couldn't guarantee the last-minute reservation and said he'd call the man later.
Instead, the man phoned Bosley back: "If I told you the customer is John Lennon, would it make a difference?"
"Come on over," Bosley replied.
Six years earlier, Bosley and his wife Linda launched a unique service — a floating restaurant serving gourmet meals on the water. "A moveable feast" read a banner on the boat.
When he saw it anchored at a West Palm Beach dock, Lennon was amused that the boat shared the name of his song, according to Seaman's "The Last Days of John Lennon."
Lennon came aboard with Yoko, their 5-year-old son Sean, Seaman and a nanny, and they all sailed north on the Intracoastal.
Lennon signed the boat's official guest log, according to The Miami Herald. Under "date" he drew a smiling sun. Under address he scrawled "here and there."
During the 5-hour cruise, they anchored off Peanut Island and talked about the renovations they were planning for El Solano.
They sang songs – but nothing by The Beatles, a subject the Bosleys never broached. After Terry Bosley sang an old sailor song, Lennon offered an impromptu version of "Popeye the Sailor Man."
Mistaken for "the gardener next door"
At El Solano, the back yard's rear border abutted a South County Road home owned by the late Fred Hope, a Palm Beach attorney who had worked in Washington as an FBI agent.
Marie Hope Davis (photo by George Bennett)
One day, Marie Hope, Fred's wife, was in the backyard planting flowers when she heard her husband chatting with someone near a driveway shared by the two properties.
"I looked up to see who he was talking to and I saw it was John Lennon. I recognized him right away," recalled Marie Hope Davis, who now lives on Singer Island.
"I wanted to meet him but I was covered in dirt. I ran into the house to wash my face and get cleaned up. By the time I got out there, he was gone."
As Marie recalls, her conversation with her husband went something like this:
"Who were you talking to?"
"Oh, that's the gardener next door. He was asking me about some plants."
"Really. Are we talking about the guy with the long hair and round glasses?"
"That was John Lennon!"
"Who's John Lennon?"
Nearly 40 years later, Davis still laughs about how her strait-laced husband had no idea who Lennon was – and how Lennon, an FBI target in the 1970s, had no idea he was talking to a former FBI agent.
'Madam Yoko would like to see you'
Dane Worthington figured he had nothing to lose.
It was March 1980, and the 27-year-old Lake Worth man had read an article about Lennon buying a house on Palm Beach.
"I wrote him a letter. The Post printed his address," recalled Worthington, an avid Beatles fan who at the time had been working on Palm Beach as a gardener at the oceanfront home of June Martino, the long-time secretary for McDonald's founder Ray Kroc.
"I told them I wasn't interested in working for them but that I wanted to talk to them about what they could do with their house."
A few days later, he got a call from Seaman, Lennon's assistant.
"He said, 'Madam Yoko would like to see you,"' recalled Worthington, now a massage therapist in Pennsylvania.
"So, I went to meet Madam Yoko and I was led to the ballroom where Yoko looked gorgeous and fabulous in her silk kimono. You could see the ocean behind her and she asked me my birthdate, did her numbers," he said, referring to a numerology reading Yoko did on him, "and then asked me when I could start. I told her I wasn't looking for a job but she convinced me.
"Then she just walked around the house describing all the things she wanted done to the place and by the time we got to the Florida room…I met John and Sean."
Worthington, who is 6-4, walked up to Lennon, who was 5-10. He was sitting in a chair. "He stood up, looked at me and said, 'Oh, my God, a big one!"'
Worthington was told he could start working at El Solano a week later. But by the time he returned home, there was already a message for him.
"They said they were leaving for New York and they wanted me to stay at the house right away," he said.
Joanne Hochella, Sean Lennon and Dane Worthington around 1984. Joanne worked as John Lennon's house keeper at El Solano on Palm Beach. her brother, Dane Worthington, was hired as gardener at El Solano after he wrote a letter to Lennon.
Worthington said he probably only spent time with Lennon that one day in Palm Beach and maybe two other days in New York, where he delivered sushi during a recording session for "Double Fantasy."
He also got his sibling a job. Lennon and Ono were looking for a housekeeper at El Solano, and Worthington recommended his sister, Joanne Hochella, of Palm Springs.
She worked at El Solano from the summer of 1980 until it was sold in 1986. For part of that time, she and her husband, John, lived in a cottage behind the estate.
The Hochellas never met Lennon but they would become close with Ono, as did Worthington.
Six days after Lennon's murder, about 200 people showed up outside El Solano for a Sunday afternoon prayer vigil that coincided with other Lennon vigils being held that day around the world.
"They were climbing over the walls," recalled Hochella.
Many mourners parked cars illegally along South Ocean Boulevard and on side streets. As they wept and set flowers and signs outside the driveway, a Palm Beach policeman used a bullhorn to warn that cars would be ticketed.
Mourners outside John Lennon's oceanfront estate in Palm Beach, after he was killed in New York City n Dec. 8, 1980. (Davidoff Studios)
Just before 2 p.m., the mansion's gate swung open and the mourners were invited to file into the front courtyard where they deposited flowers and wreaths by a saltwater swimming pool.
John Hochella, with Sean Lennon in 1984, lived in a cottage at El Solano when Lennon died in New York in 1980. A week after Lennon's death, he delivered a eulogy for fans who gathered at Lennon's Palm Beach mansion for an impromptu vigil.
"Yoko gave the command to open the gates," recalled John Hochella. "My wife called Yoko and told her about it and she said 'Please let the kids in on the front lawn."'
They stayed for about 10 minutes and prayed during a eulogy given by John Hochella, who at the time was a lay minister.
"That was tough for me," recalled Hochella, who lives in Loxahatchee, "because I didn't know where John stood religiously, what his beliefs were. I tried to keep it as subtle as I could."
News articles described what Hochella said:
"We unite in prayer and meditation at this moment with others all over the world to pray for the soul of John Lennon…
"John believed in the unity of mankind. He believed in peace and in the brotherhood of all. His music is evidence of this. And his music tells us that John Lennon will always be with us in spirit."
In 1980, John Lennon told a Palm Beach Post photographer outside The Breakers that he hadn't done an interview in 10 years. But six years earlier, he did talk to Palm Beach Daily News reporter Sally Blanchard during one of his first trips to the island.
On Palm Beach life: "I did 10 minutes on the beach earlier. That's all I could take. My skin can't take it, you know."
On the Beatles: "Oh, yes, I still see the others from time to time. It's almost impossible for us to play any music together, though. There'd have to be a purpose."
On doing concerts: "Touring is not my idea of heaven."
On listening to his music: "They're playing a lot of Beatles music down here. I never play any of my records. I prefer listening to them on the radio."
On a marijuana bust that was keeping him from returning to Britain: "That bust was a farce. The cop planted Pakistani hash in my boot. And then he did the same thing to George and later he went after the Stones. That same cop is in jail now."
On what he was listening to: "I really like what Ringo's into. I encouraged him to do the old songs…I like Gloria Gaynor's ‘Never Can Say Goodbye.' And the Stones' 'Fingerprint File.'"
On David Bowie: "I just met him in L.A. a month ago. I listened to some of his new cuts a couple of weeks ago in Philadelphia. They sounded good." (Lennon co-wrote Bowie's 1975 hit 'Fame.')
On Elvis: "I liked his stuff up until he went into the Army. It was all downhill after that."